How to Write a Suspenseful, Gripping Thriller

The Thriller – a Michael Jackson award-winning song and music video or a beloved genre of twists and turns?

Luckily, the answer is yes to both. And the music video contains some of the elements that we enjoy in a good thriller, like plot twists, a fast pace, and tension.

Thrillers are meant to thrill their audience in some way. For some reason, it means that writers like to make us turn the pages as fast as we can to reach the climax in the middle of the night. Then we spend the rest of it huddled under the covers trying to get to sleep with the lights on. It could just be me, though.

Let’s talk about the thriller and write one that takes our readers on an exhilarating journey from start to finish.

What is a Thriller?

Before we dive into the finicky details of what a thriller is and what make it good, we should define what it is:

Thriller: is a genre of literature, film, and television that induces strong feelings of excitement, anxiety, tension, suspense, fear, and other similar emotions in its readers or viewers—in other words, media that thrills the audience.

Thrillers aren’t supposed to give you the lovey-dovey feelings that a romance novel makes you feel. This genre is about making people uneasy.

And yes, while they’re looking for some sort of truth, it’s not about figuring out whodunit, but about how can we stop something from happening. It is why we will look at this in more detail below.

A thriller tries to find a truth

What’s the Difference?

Suspense, mystery, and thrillers often get lumped together at the bookstore, but there are nuanced differences between the three categories. For instance, in each genre, a character tries to find the truth or prevent something horrible from happening.

But how do we tell them apart, and why do we need to know the difference?

To answer the first part, I want to pull three “definitions” from Daily Writing Tips:

Mystery: the main character is occupied with tracking down the truth about an event, usually a murder. If the protagonist is in danger, it is usually moderate and becomes a problem only as the detective approaches the truth.

Thriller: the protagonist is in danger from the outset.

Suspense: the main character may become aware of danger gradually. In a mystery, the reader is exposed to the same information as the detective. But in a suspense story, the reader is aware of things unknown to the protagonist. The reader sees the bad guy plant the bomb, and then suffers the suspense of wondering when or if it will explode.

To sum this up, you’re reading a thriller when you know the main character is in trouble in some way throughout the novel. In a mystery, the reader and the detective know the same things, whereas, in a suspense novel, the reader knows more than the characters.

And all of this happens while the characters try to figure out the truth.

Agents and Editors Need to Know

Great! We now know the difference between the three genres. Go us! Now I will explain why this is important.

It has everything to do with marketing, editing, and querying.

Professional editors and literary agents like knowing what they will be looking at before reading your book. Editors need to know so they can ensure you’re hitting all of the right beats, and agents need to know so they can help you find the right publisher and market for your book. And if you’re pursuing self-publishing, you’ll want this information too.

If you write a cozy mystery, for example, you’ll want to market it to people who like cozy mysteries. But if you target psychological thriller fans, they won’t like your book, which means you’ll have bad reviews and sales metrics.

We don’t want that to happen, so make sure you know your audience and what they like. And if you can’t figure out which one your story falls under? Then pick the one that best suits your tale or the one that pays better dividends.

The Thriller Subgenres

As with mystery novels, thrillers also have a variety of subgenres to satisfy particular reading tastes. According to the Writer’s League, this genre has 16 subgenres and covers everything from romance to action to science fiction.

Here are the subgenres:

Infographic on the thriller subgenres

A Brief History of Thrillers

The thriller has a long history that spans back to ancient Greece. Many scholars believe that the genre got its roots in Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey. The journey that Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, go through hits many of the beats associated with today’s thriller.

However, it isn’t until the 10th century before the genre gets another boost and a new trope.

Creepy Fairy Tales

A standard convention within the thriller genre is a psycho-stalker storyline. And according to Books Tell You WhyLittle Red Riding Hood is an early example of the psycho-stalker theme, and the tale can be traced back to the 10th century. We all know that these tales were eventually collected and rewritten by the Grimm brothers in the nineteenth century.

The Brother’s Grimm

The Revenge Thriller

The revenge thriller slides a knife into our hearts in 1844 when Alexandre Dumas published The Count of Monte Cristo, a daring and adventurous revenge thriller about Edmond Dantès who is betrayed by his friends and is wrongfully imprisoned.

This literary classic brings readers on a dangerous and suspenseful adventure following Edmond’s quest for vengeance, satisfaction, and peace.

The Modern-Day Thriller

With the 20th century came modern-day thrillers. The first spy fiction and espionage novel were The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers. Childers’ tale was later eclipsed by Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity in 1980.

In recent years, we have seen titles from Vince Flynn, who is well-known for writing political thriller novels, and Dan Brown, the author of the 2003 bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code.

How to Write a Thriller

Each scene and element in a thriller is supposed to propel the action forward, test the characters, and leave readers on the edge of their seats. And to do that, you need to instill your novel with conflict, tension, and suspense.

Before you can do any of that or look at my tips below, make sure you read other books in the genre (aka research). Take notes while you read to see what other authors have done successfully or have failed to do. Then, and only then, can you write your own thriller.

You need to read some thriller to write one

Flesh Out Your Characters and Their Motivations

You need a complex character for your thriller. For example, most good guys are not precisely model citizens, and the bad guys may have the perfect justification for their actions.

And it’s the conflict that arises between these two characters that will drive your story’s action forward. So why are your characters doing what they’re doing? Here are some things to ask yourself:

  • Why do they what they do?
  • What is their ultimate goal?
  • Does the protagonist need to save him or herself or somebody else?
  • How do they react in the face of adversity?

Make It Tough For Your Protagonist

You need to develop a character that your audience cares about, and one way you can do this is by placing them in situations where it’s impossible to tell if they’ll make it or not. It raises the stakes and makes their eventual success much more satisfying.

Put your characters in jeopardy by having dangerous situations come at them from unexpected places, or make their trusted allies turn on them seemingly out of the blue.

*** Spoiler Alert for Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl below! ***

In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, protagonist Nick is the main suspect for the murder of his wife, Amy, who disappeared on their fifth wedding anniversary. Even though he is made to look like the culprit, we later find out that Amy had staged everything as a plan to accuse Nick of murder. While Amy’s coming “back to life” is meant to exonerate him and bring his life back to normal, it ends up being worse as he’s then forced to live under her threats.

Don’t Forget a Theme

According to Writer’s Digest, many aspiring thriller authors forget to communicate an idea to their audience. So don’t forget to explore a topic within your story that helps bring people closer together.

You can figure out what that message is by tracking your character down 20 years after their story took place. Find that character and ask them, “Why do you think you had to go through that? What life lesson did you learn that you can pass on to the rest of us?”

Give Your Thriller Clues and Twists

Thrillers are all about surprising your audience and keeping them on edge. Readers shouldn’t be able to guess what’s coming next most of the time, which means that you need a few plot twists. Here are some techniques you can use to find a good plot twist:

  • Write down the things that readers may expect to happen next at a pivotal moment. Then take those suggestions and throw them out a window.
  • Writer Harlan Coben would writer himself in a corner to see what would happen next.
  • In the words of Raymond Chandler: When things slow down, bring in a man with a gun. It doesn’t have to be an actual man with a gun, but find something that shakes things up.

The thing with plot twists is that they’re a lot of fun, but overdoing isn’t going to impress anyone. So make sure you’re laying down some subtle clues or foreshadowing what’s to come to give your readers a head’s up.

Cut Anything that Bogs Down Your Pacing

Thrillers are supposed to be face-paced from the first page to the last. You can’t slow down that pace, or you’ll lose readers, so cut out anything that doesn’t serve a purpose.

What might those things be? Here’s a list for you:

  • Everyday details and long passages of exposition aren’t that important.
  • Cut down on descriptions of things, like the sky or scenery. If you need to mention it, make it short and to the point.
  • If a scene or a plot doesn’t add enough excitement or slows down the action, take a step back, and rewrite it.
  • Avoid dreams, flashbacks, recollections, and memories because they will instantly slow down your narrative.

There is an exception to the flashback “rule.” You can use it in the last third of your novel if it has a bearing on current events. For example, they can throw an original and illuminating light on the denouement in the climactic scene. However, it’s also a cliche, so use your judgment wisely.

The Climax and Opening Scenes are Critical to a Thriller

The number one piece of advice best-selling thriller authors give is that you need to know your ending before you start working on anything else. Why? Because everything else in your book is gunning towards that one moment.

This scene should be original in some way, and it has to be perfect. Your antagonist has literally pushed your protagonist to their very limits. Your readers are sitting at the edge of their seats, so make sure you deliver a climax with a punch.

The other scene you need to spend a lot of time on is your opening. You need to capture your reader’s attention with the first line. Thriller readers expect action from the first moment, so you may want to start your story in media res (or in the middle).

You don’t need to start with murder, but you should start with something exciting that sets the protagonist in motion. If you need an example, check out Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity for some inspiration.

There you have it! The recipe for the perfect thriller.

Just remember to start with lots of action and strong characters. From there, make the protagonist run through the twists and turns of your tale until they reach that final epic showdown. It will make your readers squirm in their seats and be too afraid to sleep with the lights off.

And once you’re finished writing your best-seller, don’t be afraid to give it a category. As perfect as your book is, it’s not nearly as perfect if no one reads it. So take the time to market it properly; you and your book deserve it.

What’s your favorite thriller? Why do you like to read thrillers? Please let me know in the comments below!

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


4 Responses

  1. Hi, Danielle:
    “Thriller: the protagonist is in danger from the outset.

    Suspense: the main character may become aware of danger gradually.”

    Aha, ok, this makes more sense than other definitions I’ve read, thank you!

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